Faculty Contacts:

Dr. Rebecca Vega Thurber, rvegathurber@gmail.com, Dept. of Microbiology, College of Science (CoS)
Dr. Drew Gerkey, drew.gerkey@oregonstate.edu, Dept. of Anthropology, College of Liberal Arts
Dr. Jamon Van Den Hoek, Geography, College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS)
Dr. Andrew Thurber, athurber@coas.oregonstate.edu, CEOAS & Dept. of Microbiology, CoS.
Dr. Katherine McLaughlin, Dept. of Statistics, College of Science

Topic: Identifying the risks and feedbacks of long term ecological changes in reef health driven by changing human livelihoods and environmental governance.

Background: The island of Mo’orea, in French Polynesia, is an ideal site to link the human natural system to the ecology and oceanography of coral reefs because of the close socioeconomic and cultural ties of the local people to the marine environment. Furthermore, Mo’orea is the home to several existing Long Term Ecological Research sites which aim to study the mechanisms of ecosystem resistance and resilience. However, numerous risks are threatening the health and productivity of this semi-pristine reef including:

  1. Land use changes including removing restrictions of building high on the mountain and altered agricultural practices, that together change the flux of sediment and nutrients onto the reefs and cause expansive macroalgae blooms that have impacted the environment and local economy.
  2. Changing fishing practices and perceptions of marine conservation science and regulations including the introduction of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have led to conflicts with local resource users, who have been excluded from decision making and restricted in their access to resources.
  3. Changing climate associated shifts including those associated with bleaching events, Crown of Thorns starfish outbreaks, and increased hurricanes leading to defaunation and an ecosystem undergoing recovery. While bleaching stress is limited due to the higher latitude and the semi-pristine nature of the habitat, future climate scenarios are likely to exacerbate these current ‘in check’ situations. At the same time, the changing local behaviors mentioned above can interact with and potentially amplifying the effects of stressors due to climate change.

Environmentally, these above changes alter the ocean ecosystem health and/ or specifically coral health in the region. These ecosystem level alterations provide indirect and direct feedback loops on the services provided by corals and reefs. Socially, these changes also may alter people’s perceptions of the marine environment, resource management, and sciences on the island, making research findings and management decisions ineffective or potentially destructive.

While this island is well studied due to the presence of two long term research labs (the US’s Gump Marine Station and the French CNRS CRIOBE marine station), key aspects of uncertainty remain that have direct ties to public perception and ecological resilience. These unknowns include how land use changes may alter the ocean system with direct ramifications on the sediment loading and nutrient dynamics of the system. Further, MPAs in many cases result in major changes to the livelihoods of local people and create governance challenges amongst multiple stakeholders. Ineffective or contentious environmental governance may cause negative feedbacks on the reefs.

Existing Data: Moorea is a site that hosts a wealth of scientific monitoring data through the Moorea Coral Reef Long Term Ecological Research program, an active area of interdisciplinary research for 15+ years. In addition, large scale biological mapping of coral health and reef microbiology and oceanography, is underway and can present a backdrop to evaluate the efficacy of management and its perception of management practices. Combining spatial analysis and high throughput sequencing ‘big data’ from around the island with additional analysis of the biological and sociological aspects of the island, we can begin to identify risk points that can be key thresholds in shifting this semi-pristine area to either a healthier or more degraded human-reef ecosystem. Both the long term ecological data and the genomic data, covering years and 10s of Gb in size, falls within the expertise of the PI team. In addition, we aim to bring together the expertise of oceanographers, environmental scientists, and anthropologists to both compile existing data and generate new data about this highly parameterized human-reef coupled system. We aim to model this system using cross disciplinary approaches to investigate how current societal perceptions and practices are linked to current ecosystem health. We will also conduct risk assessment to predict how changes in these societal perceptions and practices can potentially further degrade local environmental health and productivity.

Data Needed: While environmental data abound, these are not necessarily pertinent to the social coupling within the ecosystem. A comprehensive study driven by the need to integrate human perception with environmental modeling and mapping, likely focusing on the uncertainty surrounding MPA efficacy, could greatly inform the risk associated with an alienated populous, how that feeds back into nutrient dynamics on the Island, and aid in the context of multiple emerging and long term risks.

Desired Area(s) of Expertise for Students

Anthropology: Identifying people’s perceptions of environmental governance and practices.

Big Data/ Uncertainty Quantification: Spatial analysis of coral reef biology, oceanography, and microbial community data in a context if MPAs and nutrient regimes across the island.

Risk Assessment: Role of altered use (for example fishing leading to altered reef health) to better understand how the ecosystem may respond to the uncertainty in human and oceanographic conditions that can alter the ecosystem.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email